Can anyone be humble? Sure, we can sometimes act humbly. But can we be truly humble people? To be dispositionally humble, a person would need to be, within practical limits, consistently humble across time and situations. To address the big question of whether humility can be a virtuous disposition, we need to know what humility is and whether it is one thing or many.

Definitional Difficulties

What humility is. Don Davis and his colleagues have described relational humility as conforming to three propositions.

  • Proposition 1: Relational humility is behavior within a particular relationship that demonstrates that the humble person has an accurate perception of the evaluation himself or herself, not thinking too much or too little of oneself—in that relationship. The same actions are unlikely to equally describe humility in relationships as divergent as disaster worker or game winner in a World Cup shoot-out.
  • Proposition 2: Humility requires other-orientation that considers the welfare of the other at least as much as one’s own welfare thus engendering trust in others.
  • Proposition 3: Humility is most likely observable in conditions when the ego is strained, such as during conflict or recognition for achievement. This is similar to most virtues, like compassion, which doesn’t show up until someone’s neediness challenges one to help.

What humility is not. Humility is similar to other qualities with which it could be confused. For example, humility is similar to, but different from, modesty, always giving in to others, compassion, or altruism. Humility is also not merely the lack of hubris, narcissism, egotism, or self-referential mental illness (i.e., delusions of grandeur). Each of these can disqualify a person from the ranks of the humble, but people can lack pride, narcissism, or egotism and still not manifest humility. Humility is something positive, not just the absence of something negative.

Humility is a virtue. The essence of most virtues is that they self-limit the rights or privileges of the self on behalf of the welfare of others. While not denying one’s ability to prosecute one’s general claims for recognition for achievement, being right, or bending the will of others to one’s own, humility sets those aside. Instead, humility engages in other-oriented acts that promote others’ welfare.

Self-control is required because humility must be exercised when the ego is strained, and that requires self-control. The ego is likely to be strained in at least four general situations: when one is (1) challenged in a conflict, (2) insecure, (3) recognized for achievement, and (4) negotiating relative contribution for some accomplishment. In each, one is threatened and needs to reassert one’s strengths to bolster the ego, is dealing with others’ ego-bolstering attention, or is receiving recognition that stimulates pride and preening. In fact, for humility to be clearly visible, the ego strain must be felt. Similar to other virtues, like courage that is evident only in the face of fear and not detectable in normal circumstances, humility is rarely detectable when one is not experiencing a challenge to the self-esteem or public esteem.

Types of Humility

Many types of humility pop up in different contexts. For example, intellectual humility might be manifest when we deal with people who have other ideas than our own. It does not treat all ideas as equal, but is, instead, open to modify ideas if contrary evidence and debate are persuasive enough. Political humility does not prioritize one’s national, state or office politics over others’ but, similar to intellectual humility, is open to contrary evidence and reasoning. Leadership humility might be willing to allow anyone to have any say that goes against his or her will for the direction of the organization—new hires, crafting a mission-vision-values statement, or work priorities, or daily activities. Religious or spiritual humility can involve strongly held opinions, beliefs, values, and practices and strong identification with a religious or spiritual community. In this case, the religiously humble person might actually believe that others might indeed be wrong theologically. However, the person still treats the other as a respected equal with important opinions and beliefs, and the person is willing to consider the possibility of error, and thus might learn from or be corrected by the religiously different person. Scientific humility is being humble about the likely implications of a discovery or achievement; it involves openness to empirical observation and theoretical reasoning that are different from one’s current view. Medical humility is humility in the face of human limitations and what medical practitioners and researchers can achieve. It scrutinizes potential unforeseen negative effects of medical advancements. It does not promise too much or too little to needy patients. Philosophical, theological, ethical, historical, and (yikes!) psychological humility assume that the human explanatory systems created and explored by thoughtful professional scholars in those fields are not absolute. Rather, they open thoughtful conversations with people. The humble scholar does not assume that he or she has arrived at truth for all time. Humility in the face of exemplary human performance (i.e., sport, arts, music) seems in general warranted. While one might be a Usain Bolt, head and shoulders ahead of other sprinters, one also knows that all records will fall. Thus one must not take oneself too seriously. And don’t get me started on sport-team humility because my team really is better than yours.

In each case, people are tempted to not be humble when they identify with an object—a person, theory, team, organization, country, ideology, religion, or profession (or other things). We invest in and identify with that object. When our identity is threatened by direct challenge to ourselves or challenge to the identified object, we rise to the challenge. We might defend our investment in our identity. If that defense is at the cost of others’ welfare, humility is sacrificed. Therein is the essence of humility. It is other-oriented (protecting the welfare of others) while not denying self-protection. It is certainly fine to protect oneself, but not at the expense of others.

What if one’s welfare comes into direct and non-compromising conflict with the other’s welfare? Sometimes that happens. But far less often than we think. As Roger Fisher and William Ury (1981) wrote in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, seemingly intractable conflict usually occurs because people are locked into defending their “positions.” But people adopt “positions” because they are protecting complex interests. Ury and Fisher have shown that people can often agree on solutions that meet both people’s interests.

Humility in Roles and Relationships

Humility is different in different roles. The humble husband will not act the same as the humble parent. The humble teacher or student, physician or patient, employer or subordinate, co-worker or rival, group member or leader, community member or community leader are different. They not only differ from others within a particular setting—i.e., humble teachers are not like humble students in an educational setting—but they also differ from others even more across setting—i.e., a humble teacher differs from a humble physician or patient.

Also, people differ in humility across different relationships. Each two personalities calls forth different behaviors. Humility is relational at root, and humility from the same person looks different in different relationships.  The same woman can act humbly with her boss but arrogantly with her spouse.

Can a Person Be Humble?

It is easy to imagine that a person might be involved in many roles, varieties of relationships, and numerous settings drawing forth, in different contexts, intellectual, political, scientific, leadership, or sport-team humility. That person might be an exemplar of humility in virtually all of those roles, relationships, and contexts. Yet perhaps there is one role, person, or relationship that brings out the non-humble. Is that person a truly humble person?

With all of these conditions in which a person must exhibit humility across time, roles, relationships, and contexts, and do so under conditions of ego strain, it is reasonable to ask whether any person can have the virtue of humility—consistency across time and situations? No one is perfect. So the question becomes, What is good enough consistency for a person to be humble? This will differ by people, who are, in turn, influenced by communities and cultures. In social interactions, we make such judgments of others, and of ourselves, and we must live with the consequences if our judgment turns out to be wrong.

Are there humble people? Yes, there are “humble enough” people. There are Mother Teresas that most of us agree are humble. There are other champions of humility populating our individual halls of humility. If we want to build humility within our culture, we can first strive for more consistent humble behavior ourselves, and we can also reinforce norms of our culture and community to recognize, encourage, and train humility. This, I believe, is our duty. This is one of our contributions to a civil society.

Discussion Questions:

  1. I’ve argued that with many different types of humility necessitated by many different types of relationships and roles in relationships, it is very difficult for a person to be really humble in his or her personality. Perhaps you disagree. Would you be willing to argue the other side of that issue?
  2. One of the statements I made is really very tentative and I’d like to hear other thoughts on it. I suggested that religious humility might be different from intellectual humility. If you disagree–and probably many people will–then would you be willing to argue the side that religious humility is actually just a form of intellectual humility. Or, perhaps you want to take another position altogether?

Discussion Summary

In this essay posted from November 4-10, 2014, I identified humility as a relational virtue—one that is conditioned by the role (i.e., friend, romantic partner, employer), and relationship within the role (i.e., conflicted, satisfied), and topic area (relational humility in general, intellectual humility, political humility, religious humility, etc.). I defined humility as having three characteristics: (1) accurate self-assessment and modest, situationally sensitive self-portrayal; (2) practice of self-sacrificially laying one’s life and agenda down for others; and (3) subject to frequent testing by life or by the person attempting to build the virtue of humility through placing the ego under some degree of strain. In the end, I questioned whether it is possible to be dispositionally humble, but concluded that, while no one could be 100% dispositionally humble, it is possible to be “good enough” for practical and social purposes. Respondents raised several fundamental questions.

(1) What is humility? (Definition)

This question took several forms. Some questioned whether humility is an achievable status. Once humble, the person might feel no ego strain in meeting life’s tests. Some questioned whether people might ever agree on a definition, and most were pessimistic of universal agreement because of the community contexts that differed. All agreed that humility is, to a large degree, contextual—from Christian organizations, where it is particularly valued, to others where it might be seen as a weakness. Davis suggested that, in addition to merely reflecting norms of a community, labeling someone as humble (or arrogant) serves a community function of regulating that person’s and others’ behavior.

One very interesting thread suggested that humility might be related to cognitive complexity, though we agreed that just because one was cognitively complex regarding humility did not mean that the person practiced humility. Humility is a habit of the heart, not just an intellectual quality.

(2) Is humility the absence or does it additionally require the presence of something?

Questions arose about whether humility is the absence of something like self-serving bias or pride or arrogance, but I argued that one can be without pride or arrogance and yet not be humble. Humility involves a (additionally) a positive commitment to (a) presenting oneself modestly, (b) self-sacrificially elevating others, and (c) testing oneself in ego straining conditions to practice the virtue. To build up any virtue is like building physical strength—analogous to character strength. So, we need to glimpse the goal of wanting to be strong enough to avoid injury if a weight fell on us or to do productive work to bless others. To build this strength, we must practice by placing our muscles under strain consistently (like weight training). If we’ve become the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of humility (i.e., masters of humility), we probably feel less strain than mere mortals if lifting the same weight. The fact that our egos do not feel strained does not mean our egos are not strained—only that our strength exceeds the strain. Furthermore, if we stop putting our muscles under strain, they atrophy. Second, discussion centered on whether humility was a master virtue, or was it slave to other virtues like self-control, love, or compassion. I argued that it was one of several master virtues.

(3) How many different areas of humility are there?

People challenged the laundry-list approach to types of humility. Some thought my list was too fine-grained and advocated one type of humility, illustrated in different arenas. Others wanted more differentiation than I provided. How many categories we identify depends on how useful each categorical system is. It is not scientifically useful to say each person has his or her own type of humility, or even that each person has a different type in each of the many different roles, relationships, and situations he or she is in. While strictly speaking that might be true, it isn’t science, which seeks to find regularities and make generalities.

New Big Questions

1. How related to each other are the classic virtues? [Can one be virtuous in one area but not others? If one changes and becomes more virtuous in one area, will other virtues also be strengthened without focal attention to them?]

2. To what degree is well-developed cognitive complexity related to more virtuous behavior? [Clearly some degree of cognitive complexity is needed to think morally about complex issues, but do people who are more cognitively complex really act more morally than those less cognitively complex?]

24 Responses

  1. Daryl Van Tongeren says:

    First of all, thanks to Ev Worthington for getting the conversation about humility started. This is certainly a topic of importance that deserves attention and is worthy of empirical scrutiny. Also, for those who know Ev personally, it is clear that Ev is a paragon of humility himself; so, it is quite fitting that his essay should stir conversation on humility.
    I appreciated Ev’s review of the humility research and raising a number of valuable considerations.

    There are two aspects on which I’d like to comment. First, I take issue with the laundry-list of various “types of humility.” Rather than types of humility, I wonder if these are simply areas in which one might be humble. Wouldn’t a humble person simply act humbly across domains and relationships, rather than a neurosurgeon living the Rocky Mountains needing both medical humility while at the hospital and sports-team while cheering on Peyton Manning and Broncos on Sunday? If there are indeed that many types of humility, why stop there? It seems like there would be a near limitless number of types of humility which one should strive to attain, which would simultaneously imply that almost everyone can be both somewhat humble yet not humble at all. I fear that such a fine grain of analysis would render the construct psychologically and practically meaningless. I would suggest we identify fewer types of humility, if we can make a firm distinction from general humility at all. (I think there are likely just a few types that can be expressed in a variety of situations.)

    Second, as a social psychologist, I can’t help but wonder if the way that humility is described is simply the inverse of one of the many biases that researchers have highlighted people demonstrate. For example, the self-serving bias is our tendency to make internal attributions for positive events and external attributions for negative events. The way humility is described is analogous to an attenuated self-serving bias. Similarly, it might be related to how people negotiate their social identities and relate to members of the out-group. Perhaps it is simply people who score lower on measures of bias and higher on levels of tolerance. In what ways could humility add to what is already known through social psychological research on how people view themselves and relate to others?

    I think humility is a valuable feature of human life and worthy of empirical investigation. However, I also think we have a task ahead of us to carve out what space humility occupies in the psychological landscape.

    • Everett Worthington says:


      Thank you for the thoughtful critique. I appreciate your two points: (1) Perhaps subdividing humility into many types could reduce it to a different type of humility in each role within each relationship within each setting; that indeed would be too small a category and would prevent generalization because everything would be a specific case. That not only would defeat science, which tries to find regularities, but it would also defeat common sense and common usage. On the other end of the spectrum, though, it seems that you might agree that being a humble Broncos fan (which I know you to be) might evoke different behaviors from being a humble social psychologist (which I know you to be). So, the question is this, how many categories of types of humility are actually helpful to identify? As psychological scientists, I know we could fall back on saying, “It’s an empirical question.” That is, we could claim that we have to measure different types of humility and see whether subdividing types of humility smaller and smaller predicts (and explains) more behavior than just using general humility. And from a pure science point of view, perhaps that is the way to answer the question. But, from a practical, feet-on-the-ground, point of view, it seems helpful to discuss different arenas in which humility, arrogance, or self-abrogation might frequently become an issue. I named some of these common arenas—intellectual humility, religious humility, political humility, sport-team humility. I’m not ready to identify every potentially contentious role within every relationship as a legitimate type of humility. But I think there are quite a few arenas that would pay great social and personal dividends if we knew more about what humility looks like in them.

      (2) You suggest that we consider whether humility is just a disposition of people who express little self-serving bias. That is, we see things naturally from our viewpoint more easily and more often than from others’ viewpoints. Thus, when we have an argument with someone, we tend to attribute cause more to the things we observe (like other people acting like a jerk, because we can SEE the other person) than when outside observers see the same interaction (because they can see and hear both of us and also can see and hear aspects of the situation that might be causative). I do agree that humble people are more likely to have less self-serving bias than others. That is because they have (1) a more accurate sense of self—being able to transcend the self-serving bias—and (2) more of an other-oriented perspective. That is also because (3) they might have developed (as a result of [1] and [2] less willingness to interpret contrary views, perceptions, and challenges as ego threats, and thus see their ego as not as often under attack and thus not need to defend it as often. So, in a way, you are right. Humility is lowered self-serving bias and increased tolerance for challenge. But humility, I believe is more than just reducing bias and increasing tolerance. It is an active sense of valuing other people (point 2), which is not reducible to devaluing them less. I could, of course, not say anything negative about someone and still not value the person. Humility is truly (perhaps mostly) about putting others and their agenda equal to or ahead of our own agenda. That is something that humility uniquely adds to the conversation.

  2. ngwade says:

    Thanks, Ev, for your essay. I thought that one way to heat up the discussion might be to challange Daryl’s claim about you being a paragon of humility, but that would take the discussion in a personal direction, perhaps not suited for this space. : )

    For serious consideration, though, I would like to offer a question about experiencing ego strain as a necessary component of visibly seeing humility. 

     In fact, for humility to be clearly visible, the ego strain must be felt. 

    If I understand the point correctly, humility can only be clearly seen when the to-be humble person experiences (actually consciously feels) an ego strain. I would disagree with this. Instead, I think that experiencing ego strain and practicing humility (or being humble; another debate to be hashed out) are orthogonal. Yes, I agree that a truly humble person will act in ways that are both self- and other-protective when their “ego is strained.” Or another way to say it would be they act humbly even though they really don’t want to (because they want to protect/bolster their ego, it feels good to take credit and be in the limelight, etc.). Although this is true in some cases, it does not then negate the humble actions of the person who feels no ego strain. The person who in a particular case might actually enjoy acting humble, for example, by caring for others’ wellbeing, genuinely accepting only that credit which is truly due, acknowledging others and their contributions, or countering the pressures caused by the situation or other people to pretend to be more than they are. Would such a person then not be acting humbly? Or would we say that are, but humility would not be clearly visible?

    In short, wouldn’t the truly humble person, someone who has really attained a master’s level of humility if that is possible, not feel the strain of the ego like the rest of us mortals? Wouldn’t that still be humility?

    • Everett Worthington says:


      What a great observation. Someone who is a master of humility might have it totally together and respond by being other-oriented without strain to the ego! I like that idea. Here’s why I think though that some strain is always necessary.


      Traditional virtue theory suggests that to develop any virtue, one must first glimpse the goal, then practice until the virtue becomes a habit of the heart, and third deal with temptations, tests, and trials, and fourth experience serene satisfaction (not happiness, because a martyr might not be happy, but satisfaction that one has done the right thing). To build up any virtue is like building physical strength—analogous to character strength. Let me work this metaphor a bit. So, we need to glimpse the goal of wanting to be strong enough to avoid injury (if for example, a heavy box fell on us and we put our hands up to stop from being injured) and do productive work to bless others. To build this strength, we must practice. And combining step 3, we do so by placing our muscles under strain. Of course, we could just wait until life threw a heavy box at us and meet the test then. But wisely, we probably want to place ourselves under systematic controlled stressors and do so repeatedly. That is the only way we are going to get stronger—by placing the muscles under strain. Meanwhile, though, life is continuing to throw weights at us, and if we’ve become the Arnold Swartzeneggers of humility (i.e., masters of humility), we probably will not even notice things that would crush a person of lesser strength. As masters of humility, we don’t even consider that our muscles are under strain, because our abilities have arisen to a level where we do not feel ego strained. But, the fact that we do not feel ego strained does not mean our egos are not strained—only that our strength exceeds the strain.


      To push the metaphor perhaps beyond the break point, what happens if we stop putting our muscles under strain? Of course, they atrophy—and amazingly quickly, too, as I found when I broke a foot years ago. So, we must continue to place the ego under controlled strain to maintain mastery.

      • Robert Roberts says:

        Ev, thanks so much for your reflections about humility. I have a couple of misgivings that I’d like to try out on you.

        I thought ngwade had a good point in saying that a person can show humility without experiencing “ego strain.” I’m not a psychologist, and am not sure I know what ego strain is, but here is my guess. If I feel an urge to brag when one of my colleagues brags about all his accomplishments, as if to say, “I’m just as fine and important as you are,” then I’m experiencing ego strain, and if I want to be humble, I’ll suppress that urge and keep my mouth shut, and just say nice things about my colleague’s accomplishments. Of if I have the thought, “I’m smarter than the other people in the room, so I have a right to dominate the conversation,” then I’m experiencing ego strain, and need to remind myself that, even if I am smarter than anybody else in the room, that doesn’t entitle me to take over the conversation. Now if I’m right about what ego strain is, then you feel ego strain only if you’re not humble. In the first example, I’m fighting my vanity, and in the second I’m struggle with my arrogance. These are both contrary to humility. It’s a mark of humility not to feel such ego strain, and if I have to fight it, then the best I can be doing is struggling towards humility. That’s noble in its own way, but it’s not humility.

        My second misgiving is a claim you made a couple of times in your essay, and then repeated even more strongly in your response to van Tongeren. You say that “humility engages in other-oriented acts that promote others’ welfare.” And to van Tongeren you say that it’s the other-orientation “that humility uniquely adds to the conversation.” But I think it’s not humility that contributes that other-orientation, that kindness or compassion or generosity. That’s the role of other virtues, like kindness, compassion, or generosity. Consider, for example, the humble white supremacist. Let’s agree that he’s a very bad man, committed to evil. Yet if he serves in the white supremacist cause without arrogance or vanity, willing to do even the humblest chores without making any claims for himself, seeking only the furthering of his cause, then he has at least one virtue, namely humility.

        Bob Roberts

        • Everett Worthington says:



          Great to hear your contribution—and perhaps ongoing dialogue on these excellent issues.  You raise several really good ones. And I suspect reasonable people will likely disagree on some of these. Let me see if I can disentangle some of the issues.

          What is ego strain? The way we look at ego strain is it is anytime the sense of self is threatened. So, if I am in conflict with someone and I get my sense of self wrapped up in the disagreement, I feel threatened. If I have a sense of self that I am humble and I receive an award or recognition or unexpected praise, then my sense of self is threatened. If I have failed at important tasks repeatedly and my self-esteem is dragging and then I get yet another failure (but perhaps see a self-interested way out), then my sense of self is threatened. If I am insulted, reviled, and put down, and my sense of self is publicly assaulted, then my sense of self or ego is strained. Also, if I am tempted with something I really want (but getting the tempting object requires non-humble behavior), then my ego will likely be under strain.

          Humility as an achieved state/trait versus humility as a state that might periodically be achieved, but is likely lost as circumstances and new tests arise. I suppose we might call this a mastery versus process definitional difference. I’m seeing a difference in the way that you and Nathaniel are viewing humility and the way I view it. I suppose I’m a bit pessimistic about anyone being a master of humility, that is of having achieved humility. (Or perhaps that is just the state of my own self-doubt and I’m projecting my own insecurities on others.) I see this as improbable because circumstances continually change and place me in new and difficult situations in which I have to make decisions (of whether I shall act humbly or not). I have more trouble with the idea that a person could have such a sense of ego security that no conflict, no unexpected praise, no set of failures, or no public dressing down (I’m thinking perhaps something even more demeaning than Alfred the Great and the peasant woman here)—that none of these could ever put his or her humility to the test. I think, for most people, humility is a continual battle, not a state one has achieved. So, to the extent that one sees humility as attainable and sustainable, one is likely to agree with you and Nathaniel. To the extent that one believes that life throws new and challenging situations at us frequently, then one might believe that humility must be frequently proved under test, trial, and temptation. I have not answered theologically, but I also personally believe that people are all imperfect (i.e., “fallen”) and thus we will never arrive at a perfect state of any virtue but will always be facing battles and thus a mastery model of a virtue, humility or any other one, is not theologically possible. But, the theological argument is a different sort than the scientific and philosophical arguments.

          The independence of the virtues. Your second misgiving is this (if I might paraphrase, perhaps inaccurately), that my claim that one of the essences of humility is other-orientedness confuses humility with other virtues (e.g., kindness, compassion, and generosity), which actually do the heavy lifting.

          This is difficult to sort out, of course, and numerous treatises have been written on what the fundamental virtues are and which are derivative and whether they are in reality all part of the same fabric. Let me be clear on my position here. We have found in examining over 100 virtues that there is a principal factor for “virtue.” But that does not account for all the variance. There are two secondary factors (and possibly more), which we call warmth-based and conscientiousness-based virtues. Warmth-based virtues include forgiveness, love, compassion, sympathy, empathy. Conscientiousness-based virtues are things like justice, self-control, responsibility, accountability, patience. But, still all the variance is not accounted for. The virtues separately must be considered. Thus, my answer to the question, “are the virtues one” is yes, and no. They are all inter-related, but they are more closely related to like virtues, and still there is room to act as individual virtues.

          But when we did that research, we did not include some virtues—like humility and wisdom, for example. (I wish we had, but we had to make finite choices to run studies.) So, if we had included humility, I would not be surprised to see it related to the overall factor, to Both the warmth- and conscientiousness-based clusters, and to various individual virtues. Look to many people who see humility as the root and the other virtues as derivative: Andrew Murray said, “Humility is the only soil in which the graces root.” And Thomas More said, “Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” And Augustine, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” And Mother Teresa, ““Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. So, of course, who really knows which is the root and which the shoot. I personally find humility to be one, if not the fundamental virtue, because its essence is other-orientedness. As such, it is the root of—in addition to compassion, kindness, and generosity, which you mention—courage (a person lays down his or her life for others), forgiveness (the person lays down the right to deserved justice to give mercy instead), justice (one binds himself or herself to laws, giving up some control for the community), and on and on. In other words, humility acts by itself, in conjunction with both clusters of virtues, and in tandem with a global goodness factor.

          Now, psychological science might be able to shed some light on this one day, but hasn’t done too well to date. We did an intervention study to promote humility using a 6 to 7 hour workbook. The humility intervention promoted changes in forgiveness, patience, and negativity (lowered), but no other workbook (i.e., forgiveness, patience, self-control, and positivity) promoted other virtues as frequently. But intervention studies are not used well for basic science questions. So, perhaps someday, we can find the products of humility (better relationships, changes in other virtues and values, more stable sense of self, etc. as well as health and neuropsychological correlates, like increased oxytocin or decreased cortisol, or increased heart rate variability—who knows what they will be). Then, we could predict those results using the various virtues in a hierarchical multiple regression design, removing the variance predicted by the virtues except for humility. But then we enter in a second step humility and we might find that we can still predict more variance in the outcomes. We then could compare that to the opposite design, removing the variance from humility and then in a second step entering all other virtues. If no variance was left after considering humility, we would have shown that humility is really the root virtue. But, this is just a Gedankenexperiment. It hasn’t been done, and we thus don’t know what results would be found.

          The third issue you raise (and it might still be part of the second) is this, can there be a humble white supremacist? I would have to say that yes, this is theoretically possible but unlikely. Definitionally, I would say is it impossible. Our first premise of humility is that the person has an accurate view of self and modest self-presentation. My judgment is that a white supremacist does not have an accurate view of self. He or she might believe himself to be accurate, but that doesn’t make it so. I could believe I could fly, but I won’t leave the ground. My qualified answer, though, is based on the fact that people are not perfect, and one can have well-developed virtues but still have fatal vices. So, from a practical standpoint, I find it possible to be a humble white supremacist. But I also said it is unlikely. I believe it is unlikely because humility probably won’t be at home with the belief and actions that put the white supremacist’s agenda over members of other races. When you suggest that this person might be humble, you say, “Yet if he serves in the white supremacist cause without arrogance or vanity, willing to do even the humblest chores without making any claims for himself, seeking only the furthering of his cause, then he has at least one virtue, namely humility.” This also goes against my second premise of humility, that he is other-oriented. The supremacist, by nature, is not other-oriented and willing to put the agenda of the other over his own. Thus, by both premise 1 and 2 of the definition, it seems highly unlikely that there could be such a humble white supremacist.


          I look forward to your responses, Bob. Great questions.

  3. abed.peerally says:

    As the author rightly emphasizes there are different dimensions in the manifestation of humility. I think the subject is too wide to be able to finish discussing its implications now but we will try. Humility is not necessarity a person’s attitude for his humility cannot be assessed objectively by every one. We know that some people are naturally humble and sometimes that is looked upon as a weakness. If you want to get a well paid job you cannot be too humble in your appearance and discussion. Are village people more humble than others. The greatest kind of humility is potentially possessed by the most capable but even then can he be seen by others as being humble. Suppose I say that some world authorities are wrong in certain arguments. howeever right I may be, might well  be looked upon as lack of humility although I might be a most humble person. When you are a great mind and very humble then you need be very cautious how you manage your acts. To be humble can be an obstacle, rather than a virtue.

    • Everett Worthington says:

      This is a good observation. There are at least two issues raised here. (1) Virtue can certainly be an obstacle to success. Fessing up to a mistake could be damaging to one’s career. But we still strive for honesty and take the consequences. The old (perhaps apocryphal) story of Abe Lincoln makes this point. Abe borrowed a book from a neighbor, and a violent storm blew water through the walls of his cabin ruining the book. But Honest Abe returned the book, admitted the damage, and accepted the “punishment” of working three days of manual labor to cover the cost of the book. His honesty was certainly a block to his pleasure, but he did what was right, what was virtuous, and accepted that indeed an obstacle would be costly. Similarly, humility (to the extent it is a virtue) is the right thing to do. But as the commentator observes, it might have problematic consequences. (2) One can behave too humbly to suit the circumstances. Humility requires a certain amount of social and emotional sensitivity. My personal tweak to the definition that Davis et al. (and I’m one of the et al.s) offered is this. Point 1: accurate perception of the self (and I would add) and modest self-portrayal. Modest self-portrayal involves social sensitivity or social intelligence, which prevents one from presenting oneself as arrogant or as falsely modest. One presents oneself accurately, but presents the amount and style that is socially appropriate.

  4. ddavis88 says:

    Daryl, I really liked your question about “how many types of humility are there.” We seemed to open this can of worms as soon as we, as a field, started talking about intellectual and general humility. It was apparent to me that social scientists seem to have sometimes very different assumptions about what ideal humility would look like if one saw it in real life. For other virtues, definitions have tended to eventually converge to some extent. I wonder if this is less likely to occur with humility without first acknowledging that whether behavior is considered humble is contingent on norms, based on contextualized values. And maybe we need a map for understanding of what evidence counts as relevant. If I call someone arrogant, then this carries very specific information that is perhaps largely consistent across contexts (i.e., this person is selfish and considers their own needs more important than those of others, so be careful). But the evidence that I use to draw this conclusion is based on unique values and assumptions about how the target person’s behavior fell short of what was expected (or in the case of high humility, perhaps it was surprising in a way that exceeded expectation). 

    For example, if all of the sudden a few months from now, you started telling people that Ev is really quite arrogant, then I would generally assume that something had happened. I would ask for the story. Say you told me that Ev had taken a strong position in a faculty meeting that was a minority perspective. He offered well-reasoned arguments and also listened to well reasoned arguments. His reasoning became more complex, but he really did not shift his overall commitment. Late that day, I talk to someone else who tells me a different story about the same event. In this story, Ev was very courageous to present a dissenting perspective. He remained engaged and non-reactive. He was willing to change his mind some. In normal life, these two stories wouldn’t be that confusing. I’d just assume that these different stories about Ev’s level of humility are tied to assumptions and values about how he ought to have acted (i.e., norms and potentially disagreements about what other virtues were most important in that context).

     I ran across a paper by Swartz that found humility, as a value, sometimes mapped onto more liberal values in certain countries, but it mapped onto more conservative values (i.e., respect for tradition, conformity) in other countries. So my follow-up question is, what if humility is inherently tied to normative assumptions and trying to decouple it from these would make the new construct esoteric (i.e., very different from what most people mean when they call someone arrogant or humble). And if so, how can we work towards convergence on what humility is.

  5. ddavis88 says:

    Ev, I’m not very familiar with master virtue arguments, but I really like this question. It seems like positive psychology often focuses on one virtue at a time, but there is less theory and research on how two or more virtues work together. I recently had a conversation with a colleaque who does mindfulness reseach, and he liked the idea that compassion may be a master virtue, but then he went on to define compassion in a very specific way that might involve “fierce compassion” in a relationship that requires assertiveness. This got me thinking (I know, bad idea) that “virtue language” likely serves a self-regulatory role, in that when a particular idea is salient, it calls to mind specific goals (i.e., this is what ought to occur, even though it would be difficult and aspirational). Second, communities may use the same words, but imply very different proximal goals. Third, the social consequences of failing to achieve virtue may be similar: (a) if I am seen as doing well, I recieve social approval; (b) eventually, I internalize these values and I may affirm myself for achiving virtue even if I happen to be in a context that doesn’t currently view my behavior as virtuous.

    This last point is a question I’ve been wrestling with. Although I don’t see an easy way to define humility the exact same way across groups with very different values, because it seems values and norms may be embedded somehow, I do not like the idea that humility is nothing more than just some sort of aggregate of one’s reputation of being humble. I want there to be a humility that is different than the least common denomenator approach of polling someone’s reputation. For example, someone engaged in affecting social change might be viewed as arrogant by almost everyone for not respecting authority structures. For humilty to predict behaviors such as those who took on great risk to help Jews during World War II, it would have to have more backbone. Any thoughts on how to give humilitiy a spine?

  6. Everett Worthington says:

    In that faculty meeting, I was the epitome of humility, nearly perfect. (Uh-oh, this might in itself answer all questions about any personal humility I might have.)

    Donnie, your thoughtful comments are very much in agreement with my thoughts. Certainly, we started out viewing humility as contextualized relationally—different in different relationships, and even in different roles within those relationships. Yes, context matters very much, in fact I believe is crucial. Does that mean humility as a disposition might be completely relative? I don’t think so. I think though that high social and emotional intelligence is needed by a person to act humbly. The person must attend to the situational cues and response self-consistently but sensitively to them.

  7. abed.peerally says:

    As I said earlier the issue of what surrounds the concept of humility is a very complex one. It is very different from the central focus of many previous Big Question themes. So now it isbeing asked how many different kinds of humility there are. I could venture an answer. My personal opinion is that it is  like asking how many different kinds of persons there are. I think that psychologists have a difficult job rsearching on this concept. What is such a difficult proposition in my personal view is that humility cannot  be given a clear definition because humility, like beauty, is about how others see it. Each kind of humility can be  appreciated differently by different minds. What is objectively attainable is that obsessive humility is a defect and that is where psychologists have more to attend to.

  8. Everett Worthington says:


    You make several really good points.

    (1) Virtues often work in tandem.

    (2) There might be a master, driving virtue, but it is unlikely that different communities, which have different norms and expectations, would agree on what they are.

    (3) Virtue language, i.e., labeling oneself or others as virtuous (or not), calls out specific behaviors—usually those that are community approved. This not only rewards individuals so labeled to do more of the virtuous behavior, but it also clearly defines the community’s norms about what is “good.” The naming of a virtue has a powerful effect at shaping one’s own and others’ behaviors. Thus, the community rewards virtuous behavior and punishes failures to live up to virtue and also punishes vice.

    (4) Communities might use the same labels for different behavior, so it is unclear what each virtue “really is, at root.”

    (5) While we might all agree that community context influences what is seen as virtuous, it is not edifying to treat virtue as completely relative.

    Thus all five of these points (which I might have paraphrased in ways that added a bit to what you said) boil down to this: Most people probably believe that humility is highly influenced by one’s community but many people want to believe that there is something absolute that might define a virtue unambiguously. Within communities, of course, many are content to think that a virtue has an absolute meaning. So, within Christian communities, humility might be described as copying Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being submissive to God (and on behalf of humans) to death, even death on a cross (a loose paraphrase of the beginning of Philippians 2). Some branches might elevate this understanding of humility to be absolute. But other communities might not agree. Is there some absolute definition across communities?

    I’m pessimistic that we can find something that gives a definition of humility more “backbone.” It certainly cannot be scientific definitions of humility. Science, as you know, is empirically centered, and yet interpretation of data will change with time and circumstances and even the data themselves can change according to time and circumstances. So, science by its nature cannot reveal ultimate truth, just scientists’ “best” understanding (i.e., that understanding that fits the current body of data and theory most closely and answers relevant questions most heuristically).

    I have limited understanding, and I fear that my mind is too caught up in post-modernism and its understanding of contextualized truth to be able to creatively get beyond this at this point.


  9. owenjesse77 says:

    Thanks Ev for writing such a thought provoking piece! With the topic of multiple types of humility it made me reflect on my early work on Epistemic Cognitions (how we think about nature of knowledge). Within this area, there are domain general and domain specific epistemic cognitions or beliefs. What we find is that as one gains more experience in an area they develop more domain specific epistemic cognitions. For example, as a psychologist I think more critically regarding topics within my area (e.g., psychotherapy) as compared to physics (where I my knowledge is quite limited – I think I earned a C in high school). If humility follows a similar path, then we can likely assume that humility may be related to domain specific areas differentially than domain general areas. Those contrasts may serve as important lessons in life? Not sure, but it would be interesting to test some of these propositions. 



  10. cbcDrNew says:

    Dr. Worthington, thank you for the insightful article.  I often use your work in my psychology and counseling classes.  Your work has served me well as I try to serve my students well.

    In your article, you state, “If we want to build humility within our culture, we can first strive for more consistent humble behavior ourselves, and we can also reinforce norms of our culture and community to recognize, encourage, and train humility. This, I believe, is our duty.”  I wonder if you have thoughts you can share about the most effective way to promote humility.  In a previous comment, you mentiononed an intervention program and workbook.  Were there significant findings from that project that indicated any best practices for promoting humility?  Also, do you suppose there are any “critical periods” in our development or particular life experiences where learning humiility is more likely?

    And on a slightly different note, I also work within the Christian tradition.  My thoughts immediately turned to Philippians 2 (that you reference in a comment elsewhere).  I wonder how would you describe the relationship between humility and the various fruits of the Spirit described in Galatians 5?

  11. Everett Worthington says:

    As others have discussed, you have really zeroed in on some major questions. What is humility? How generalizable is humility? This includes how much of humility can be a trait? How many types of humility are there? Is humility an objective trait, or is it just something perceived (differently) by each person?

    You’ll probably note my answers to others who have raised these issues, but this is a good opportunity to reiterate.

    Definition. I see humility as being something that can be defined scientifically in several ways, each of which gives a different slant on it. These operational definitions allow scientists to define something rigorously enough to test scientifically, and then, based on their empirical results refine the definition to something that more accurately approximates the real thing. But, perhaps the real quality of humility might not be accurately ever defined or measured. That does not negate that there might be a real thing as humility. People perceive me differently, depending on their background, and though they might define who I am and react to me differently, I still objectively exist and people can, over time, probably zero in on the essence of what is me (though no one will ever probably nail the exact truth of who I am, including me).

    Different types of humility. I believe there are distinct different types of humility, but the question of how many we identify depends on how useful each categorical system is. It is not scientifically useful to say each person has his or her own type of humility, or even that each person has a different type in each of the many different roles, relationships, and situations he or she is in. While strictly speaking that might be true, it isn’t science. Science seeks to find regularities and make generalities. (Yes, I know that different philosophers of science disagree about this, but this is my philosophy of science.) So, from a utilitarian perspective, I must ask, what category system is useful? I think it is useful to think about different types—a modest number of different types—of humility. I think that modest number is somewhere greater than (a) just calling all humility relational and treating it as if there is just one type and it is less than saying there are as many different types as there are people. In the essay, I named several of the ways I thought were useful ways of categorizing humility and guiding scientists to investigate the regularities of those types.

  12. Everett Worthington says:

    Great observation. I love cross-subject connections. I think that is where scientific progress sometimes takes a giant step forward. So, in response to what you wrote, let me see if I can make some extensions, which you no doubt have already made.

    First, people who do research on humility or write philosophically on humility (like theologians, or like philosophers such as Bob Roberts) might be likely to develop more fine-grained understandings of humility.

    Second, people for whom humility might be a core personality trait might also be inclined to think and act more complexly regarding humility than they did prior to developing humility as one of their core traits. Experience provides more differentiation or more domain-specific cognition.

    Notice, I speak of the way we think or conceptualize humility, but I was careful not to say that somehow people who are more cognitively complex might actually be more humble. I would suppose that there are some extremely humble people that don’t think about it much; they just do it. And there are very cognitively complex people who experience the Hamlet-“analysis is paralysis” inhibition to action. So, scientifically, it would indeed be great to look at the factors that allow people to (a) develop more cognitive complexity about humility and (b) move from cognitive complexity to consistently humble action.

    • owenjesse77 says:


      What a great reply – got me to think a lot about the development of humility. Interestingly, I would think that humility may be associated with cognitive complexity. Yet, I don’t think that those two constructs would correlate as highly as one would think (or hope). As I think we both know folks who have gained a lot of expertise in , and can think complexly about, an area and that process has not aided their level of humility 🙂

      It would be interesting to see how the different paths emerge with this intersection of experience or cognitive complexity. I do agree with you that experience in an area is likely to affect humility, but more than experience – expertise or cogntive complexity (as experience is a good but imprecise prediction of expertise). 

      By the way, I made this comparison such that we can have a larger framework to think about the domains. It is not that we need to define each specific type of humility, but rather understand that some folks may be seen as quite humble in one area and not in another. Similar to attachment literature, I doubt we need to define specific types of attachment, rather we can likely understand the dynamics of the construct and then proceed to study it within specific areas (e.g., content vs process). 



      • Everett Worthington says:


        Your suggestion that it would be interesting to see how people’s experience and development of cognitive complexity intersected is superb. For example, we might think that people who join the community L’Arche (living in communities where some of the people have deficits in intellectual functioning would provide an interesting case. The community might be one of the communities most conducive to the development of humility in the world. Some people whose intellectual functioning is quite low might have very high humility. People who have high cognitive complexity entering the community, might develop more humility as they gain experience in the community. Perhaps we might see the same thing in some churches that emphasize humility, though the distribution of cognitive complexity and the experiences available might be more diffuse (because most churches draw across the spectrum of cognitive capability and because the exposure to the community is only once or twice a week (or less) for most participants. On the other hand, one might think of different experiences of someone who is a political science major in a university and is grooming himself or herself for a political career. On one hand, the university education will likely increase cognitive complexity, but (excuse my cynicism and stereotyping) I might go out on a limb and suggest that most people do not necessarily become more humble as they gain political experience. (One might say the same for university professors, of course.) So, there is, as you suggest, and as I agree, a great deal of interaction between people’s community experience and their development of cognitive complexity.

        Your second point—that perhaps we don’t really need to define different types of humility (making an analogy to attachment)—is, of course, a legitimate point. I don’t really think, though, that it quite fits for me. Attachment is something that is highly influenced by early experience, and it tends to get fixed in. Humility, though, is I believe more of an adult developmental process. As such, it is more situationally dependent. Different subtlety can be exercised as an adult, and finer distinctions are possible and likely—regardless of cognitive complexity (however, clearly cognitive complexity affects the distinctions). So, to me, it is likely that there is much more room for seeing different factors that affect spiritual humility, general relational humility, political humility, and intellectual humility (and, of course, sport-team humility). So, the analogy is, for me, not persuasive.

        Anyway, this has been a wonder thread and perhaps has given researchers and practitioners ideas for better understanding of humility.

  13. mariam.saibu.3 says:

    I disagree with the first question that it is impossible for a person to be really humble. The only way for one to measure humility would be to monitor a person’ s action in certain situations. Although a person might not be consistently humble, if someone is truly humble one would see a high level of correlation in most of their actions. A person does not necessarily have to be humble 100% of the time to be considered a humble person. if one is not  humble, one would be inconsistencies in their character in similar situation where they would be expected to be humble.

  14. Everett Worthington says:

    Thanks for the very practical question, How (practically speaking) can one actually become more humble?

    Clinical science studies of humility workbooks. Yes, we have done research in this. Caroline Lavelock, myself, and Donnie Davis designed a workbook that people can work through themselves. You can download a copy free from In two different studies, people spend about 6.7 hours on it. They write anywhere from 1,000 to about 10,000 words as they work through exercises to help them develop forgiveness. The first article reporting on the efficacy of the workbook has been published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology. I might point out, though, that the workbook is actually secular and the people participating in the experiment were drawn from a large state university. (In this university, over half describe themselves as Christian, and—as one might surmise—they come from many different Christian traditions and differ markedly in their religious commitment.) With many virtues embraced and championed by Christianity, people who are devoted Christians still spontaneously employ religious methods, like prayer, Christian medication, reference to Scripture, etc., to promote the virtue even though the workbooks are secular. In addition, we have found on several studies of virtue that Christians sometimes fare better than those who do not embrace Christianity—most likely because the virtues are primary in their faith tradition.

    In the study in JPT, people signed up to participate in a study in which they would try to build some virtue. They did not know which virtue they would be working on. We randomly assigned them to either a control (no treatment) condition or to complete one of five workbooks (humility, forgiveness, patience, self-control, or positivity). In the article, we reported only the comparison between the control and humility workbook conditions. Despite being assigned to complete a humility workbook (even though that might not have really been of concern to them), they changed their trait humility over the course of the experiment. Yes, their trait. Not only that, but they also changed their trait forgivingness, trait patience, and got less negative. (They did not change their trait self-control or positivity.)

    We have replicated this, but it has not yet been submitted for publication yet. It is being prepared even as we speak. In the replication, people signed up to participate in a workbook study on humility. So, this time they know what they were in for. They did even better—perhaps not surprisingly—than in the first study. Here are effect sizes (i.e., size of the effect) for each study (Study 1àStudy 2). Trait humility (0.35à0.86), trait forgivingness (0.40à0.91), trait patience (0.28à0.19), and negativity (0.05à0.48). Although this study has not been subjected to peer review, so at this point we can’t hang too much weight on it, it is encouraging.

    Christian humility. Yes, I also am from a Christian tradition, and in fact have been teaching on humility within that tradition. As I mentioned in a couple of my responses in this discussion of my essay, I think humility is one of the master virtues. It is, in a way, at the root of all virtues. But so is self-emptying (kenotic) love. Both involve laying down one’s life for others. In the passage on fruit of the spirit, as you know, Paul writes that “The fruit of the spirit is Love….” Many commentators focus on how love is the fruit of the Spirit, but the list following love (“… joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”) is simply an unfolding of love, much like opening an orange and seeing all of the plugs that are slight variants inside. This would give some weight to my argument that humility is a master virtue. But it would also—because humility is not explicitly named—give support to Bob Roberts’ contention that love might be the master, not humility. At any rate, humility, I believe is intimately related to other virtues.

  15. Everett Worthington says:

    I disagree with the first question that it is impossible for a person to be really humble. The only way for one to measure humility would be to monitor a person’ s action in certain situations. Although a person might not be consistently humble, if someone is truly humble one would see a high level of correlation in most of their actions. A person does not necessarily have to be humble 100% of the time to be considered a humble person. if one is not  humble, one would be inconsistencies in their character in similar situation where they would be expected to be humble.

    Response to Miriam.saibu.3

    Good point. A humble person does not need to be perfectly humble in every single situation, in every single role, in every single relationship. I don’t think we disagree about this. You seem to think a person could be considered humble even if not 100% humble all of the time. Here is the concluding paragraph to my essay:


    Are there humble people? Yes, there are “humble enough” people. There are Mother Teresas that most of us agree are humble. There are other champions of humility populating our individual halls of humility. If we want to build humility within our culture, we can first strive for more consistent humble behavior ourselves, and we can also reinforce norms of our culture and community to recognize, encourage, and train humility. This, I believe, is our duty. This is one of our contributions to a civil society.

  16. smcelroy says:

    What a great and thought provoking essay and discussion! It does seem that the science of humility still has a long way to go, which I find very exciting.

    Regarding discussion question 1 (whether humility can be a personality trait), I tend to think of humility in contextual and relational terms. Specifically, I intuitively think that individuals may be more humble within relationships that they are highly invested in. This is because humility should promote harmony within the relationship, which would be desirable from a relationship quality perspective. Individuals may be less humble in relationships they are not invested in, because it would not matter so much if the relationship quality suffers. For example, someone may have a political disagreement with their spouse using compassion and flexibility, but then get into a yelling match over the same topic with a casual acquaintance. In such a situation, is it possible to define a person’s “true” level of political humility (if such a subdomain exists)?  

    This is where I agree with and bring in the idea that humility involves self-control. Some scholars (Vohs et al., 2014) have asserted that self-control is a limited resource. Therefore, we may invest our limited self-control resources (and thus, ability to behave humbly) in the relationships and situations that really matter to us.

    However, I also believe that it is possible to increase one’s humility, and perhaps have it become more of a stable personality trait across situations. For example, self-compassion has been linked with higher self-control. It has also been linked to less defensiveness, less self-blame, better self-regulation, and better interpersonal relationships (Terry et al., 2011). These sound like some of the same benefits of humility, and I suspect that self-compassion and humility may be strongly linked. Therefore, to the degree that self-compassion can be consistent across situations, perhaps humility can be as well. It would be interesting to see if self-compassion interventions increase humility as well.

    In summary, I’m not sure that it is possible for anyone to be perfectly humble. I also think that most people have at least some humility in some situations. If humility really is dependent on self-control, then finding ways to increase self-control (via increased self-compassion, for example) may make one’s humble behavior become more consistent across relationships and situations.    

  17. Everett Worthington says:

    You make a lot of great points. (1) I love the way you articulate what we call the “social oil hypothesis,” which is that humility enhances social relations, especially those in which someone is highly committed. (2) Also, I you’re your statement relating humility to Baumeister’s ego depletion research. (3) Concerning self-compassion, I’m not quite with you there. Humility requires accurate self-understanding and modest (for the situation) self-portrayal, self-sacrifice placing others interests over one’s own, and meeting life-imposed and self-imposed tests of humility. Each of the three portions requires self-control. I am less convinced that self-compassion is required. I cannot quite understand what kind of theoretical, conceptual connection there might be. Certainly self-compassion requires some self-control, but two things correlated with a common factor does not necessarily imply that they are correlated with each other. So, you have proposed an intriguing hypothesis. Now it just needs (a) a conceptual rationale and (b) an empirical test of the hypothesis.